Friday, January 25, 2013

“Moved to delight by the melody” — CONCORA presents “Modern Masters”

On February 10, CONCORA, the all-professional choir in which I sing, will mark the 100th birth anniversary of English composer Benjamin Britten, and the 90th birthday of American composer Ned Rorem, with a concert of “Modern Masters.”

CONCORA presents “Modern Masters”
Monday, February 11, 2013, 7:30 p.m.
South Church, 90 Main St., New Britain
CONCORA celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten and the 90th birthday of Ned Rorem with a concert featuring works of these two musical masters of choral composition. Features Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia and selections from Rorem’s Seven Motets for the Church Year. Masterful works from other composers such as Eric Whitacre and John Rutter add to the celebration.
General admission $25, students $10.
(860) 293-0567

You can read more about the program, see the repertoire list, and read some of my program notes, by clicking here:

Scroll down to see the earlier posts.

Here are the program notes I prepared for the two works on the program by Benjamin Britten.

Britten seems to have been one of the more complex personalities among the great composers (though that perception might be influenced by the fact that we have access to so much biographical material which we lack for most composers of earlier eras). His music, and its genesis, is inextricably bound up with his personal life circumstances, more than, say, Mozart or perhaps even Rorem. The challenge for the program annotator is to provide just enough context for the music without offering a full-scale biography, and to avoid the temptation (to which too many program annotators yield) to speculate what a composer was thinking or feeling when composing this or that piece.

In Jubilate Deo, his 1961 setting of Psalm 100, British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) presents an exuberantly joyous anthem of thanksgiving. It is characteristic of the music he composed for liturgical use, with a clear structure and equally-important writing for voices and organ. Maestro Coffey says of this work: “This is one of Britten’s masterpieces in miniature, offering some dazzling antiphonal writing, a sparkling part for organ, and sudden shifts of vocal timbre from full throttle to a whisper.” A quieter central portion reflects on the mystery of God.

O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands;
Serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song.
Be ye sure that the Lord he is God:
It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves;
We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
O go your way into his gates with thanksgiving,
and into his courts with praise:
Be thankful unto him, and speak good of his name.
For the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting:
and his truth endureth from generation to generation.
Psalm 100

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end, Amen.
Book of Common Prayer

Benjamin Britten had long wanted to compose a work to honor Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, a status so conferred in recognition of the legend that she had sung praise to God at the moment of her death. (Britten was born, fortuitously, on November 22, the traditional feast day of Saint Cecilia.) In 1935, Britten recorded in his diary, “I’m having great difficulty in finding Latin words for a proposed Hymn to St. Cecilia — spent morning hunting.” It was not until five years later that his search for a text was fulfilled.

From 1939 to 1942, Britten and his partner, tenor Peter Pears, had lived and worked in the United States. There, they formed a close association with British poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973), who assumed the role (not always welcomed) of Britten’s mentor. When Auden learned of Britten’s wish to compose music for Saint Cecilia, he responded with the Hymn to Saint Cecilia, sending it to Britten along with unsolicited advice on how to be a better person and a better composer. (It was the last time that Britten and Auden would collaborate.)

When Britten and Pears departed for England in March 1942 (aboard a noisy, smelly, uncomfortable cargo vessel, the only berths they could secure), Britten faced an uncertain future at home; he had left England in protest over its entry into the war, and knew he would be called to a tribunal over his refusal to enlist. (He was eventually granted conscientious objector status, and was exempted from military service.) He also had been suffering from writer’s block, perhaps connected with his continued inner struggle to accept his homosexuality and its influence on his creative life.

Auden’s hope in composing the Hymn to Saint Cecilia for Britten had been that the words, and the process of setting them to music, would free the composer from his doubts, release him from an “artificial childhood” in which he denied his true adult self, and inspire in him a sense of freedom and repose.

Auden’s poem seems to have struck its mark, for it unleashed in Britten a torrent of confident productivity. Despite the stresses of the homeward journey, Britten completed two major choral works while at sea —the Hymn to Saint Cecilia and A Ceremony of Carols — both of which are remarkably luminous, optimistic, and beautifully crafted, considering the difficult circumstances under which they were composed.

In setting Auden’s remarkable text, Britten clearly enjoyed depicting the various musical aspects of the Saint Cecilia legend: she was said to be so close to heaven that she could hear the songs of angels, and she is credited with inventing the pipe organ in order to, as Auden says, “enlarge her prayer.” (In artistic renditions, she is often depicted at the console of an organ, though a better interpretation of the Greek “organon” or Latin “organum” might refer to the human vocal organ.)

Detail from the Ghent Altarpiece, showing Saint Cecilia at the organ
Britten’s embrace of Auden’s optimistic sentiment is immediately apparent in the light-filled transparency with which the work opens. Repeated figures in the tenor and bass evoke the “ground bass” or passacaglia style of Purcell and other Baroque masters. Over these, the upper voices, advancing and retreating in a medieval-style fauxbourdon, outline shimmering harmonies. By neatly juxtaposing the intellectual (Cecilia) and the erotic (Aphrodite), Auden acknowledges Britten’s conflicted impulses. A hushed invocation to the saint (Blessed Cecilia) closes the first section.

In the second section, Auden gives us the voice of Music itself, or perhaps of Britten, the perpetual child. A scherzo in the shape of a modified fugue, this music plays and chases itself in whispers, with full-voiced passages emerging for key phrases (I am defeat). The ground-bass theme from the first section is a unifying element. The chase comes to an abrupt end with a revelation, and a plea: I shall never be Different. Love me.

With a return of the invocation (Blessed Cecilia), the music blossoms into a lyrical contemplation on the regrets of lost childhood and acceptance of adulthood. A relentless ostinato in the bass voice denies escape from this confrontation, yet opportunity is at hand. Over the choir, a solo soprano voice emerges, looking back on childish things and offering redemption (O hang the head… Weep for the lives your wishes never led).

In the final lines, Auden follows the long tradition of Cecilia ode-making by naming various musical instruments, and Britten calls forth four solo voices to remarkable effect in depicting violin (alto), drum (bass), flute (soprano), and trumpet (tenor). The four “instrumental” lines are a poignant summation of the entire Hymn, which ends with a very quiet restatement of the refrain.


In a garden shady this holy lady
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on
Poured forth her song in perfect calm:
And by ocean’s margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air.

Blonde Aphrodite rose up excited,
Moved to delight by the melody,
White as an orchid she rode quite naked
In an oyster shell on top of the sea;
At sounds so entrancing the angels dancing
Came out of their trance into time again,
And around the wicked in Hell’s abysses
The huge flame flickered and eased their pain.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.


I cannot grow;I have no shadow
To run away from,
I only play.

I cannot err;
There is no creature
Whom I belong to,
Whom I could wrong.

I am defeat
When it knows it
Can now do nothing
By suffering.

All you lived through,
Dancing because you
No longer need it
For any deed.

I shall never be
Different. Love me.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.


O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall,O calm of spaces unafraid of weight,
Where Sorrow is herself, forgetting all
The gaucheness of her adolescent state,
Where Hope within the altogether strange
From every outworn image is released,
And Dread born whole and normal like a beast
Into a world of truths that never change:
Restore our fallen day; O re-arrange.

(Soprano solo) O dear white children casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences
Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head,
Impetuous child with the tremendous brain,
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain,
Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,
Weep for the lives your wishes never led.

O cry created as the bow of sin
Is drawn across our trembling violin.
(Alto solo) O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain.

O law drummed out by hearts against the stillLong winter of our intellectual will.
(Bass solo) That what has been may never be again.

O flute that throbs with the thanksgiving breathOf convalescents on the shores of death.
(Soprano solo) O bless the freedom that you never chose.

O trumpets that unguarded children blow
About the fortress of their inner foe.
(Tenor solo) O wear your tribulation like a rose.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

Program notes prepared for CONCORA by Grace Notes Writing.
© 2013 Grace Notes Writing. All rights reserved.
Re-use, distribution, or re-publication in whole or in part is expressly forbidden and is punishable by law.
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